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Handy crafts: A brief look at fingernail fetishes

The one thing about sexual fetishes that always amazes me is how specific some people’s sexual likes and interests are. One such fetish is fingernail fetish. According to Dr. Ellen McCallum’s book Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism, this fetish is a specific sub-type of hand fetishism (as other sub-types include finger fetishism and palm fetishism or include non-sexual specific actions done by the hands such as washing up or drying the dishes). According to the Wikipedia entry on hand fetishism, “this fetish may manifest itself as a desire to experience physical interaction, or as a source of sexual fantasy”. A quick look online suggests that the fetish exists as there are various dedicated websites catering for all sexual fingernail needs such as the Fingernail Fetish website (“a collection of soft-core image galleries and video catering to 
those with a long-nail fetish”) and the one run by the Pinterest website.

Fingernail fetishes are certainly referenced by leading academics and clinicians in the sexology field although most of the references to it point out its existence but give little information with respect to incidence, prevalence, or etiological development. For instance, the Austrian psychologist Dr. Wilhelm Stekel in his 1952 book Sexual Aberrations: The Phenomena of Fetishism in Relation to Sex noted:

“The true fetish lover dispenses with a sexual partner and gratifies himself with a symbol. This symbol can be represented by a piece of clothing, a part of the partner’s body (pubic hair, nails braid or pigtail) or any object used by the other person”.

Similarly, Dr. Martin Kafka in one of his many papers in the Archives of Sexual Behavior on sexual fetishism also made reference to the fetishization of fingernails without giving any detail:

“Fetishes tend to be articles of clothing, such as female undergarments, shoes and boots, or, more rarely, parts of the body such as hair or nails. Technically, hair and nails are body products but they are also ‘’non-living objects’ consistent with the DSM-III definition of fetishism. Feet, hands, or other typically non-sexualized parts of the body are not ‘non-living objects,’ however, and there was no diagnostic entity offered in DSM- III to account for persons whose fetishism-like clinical disorder was delimited by an exclusive focus on non-sexual body parts, such as hands or feet…As was noted in DSM-III, body products, such as hair or fingernails, can become obligatory fetish objects”.

Having carried out an extensive literature search on academic databases, the only case of fingernail fetishism that I was able to locate was a 1972 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, by Dr. Austin McSweeny who successfully treated a young male fingernail fetishist using hypnosis. I also came across a 2001 Spanish paper written by Dr. Jaime Tabares that the title translated as “Fetish perversion: From pathological mourning to alienating manic identification” and published in Revista de Psicoanalisis de la Asociacion Psicoanalitica de Madrid. The paper discussed the case of a 24-year Spanish male and the role of depression, paranoid anxiety, and pathological mourning in the development of masculine perversion and fetishism. The only reason I mention this paper is that the author mentioned that one of the fetishes (along with his masochistic fantasies) was for painted nails.

Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices) reported a truly bizarre case involving necrophilia and fingernails. Citing from a 1963 book by Dr. R. Masters and Dr. A. Lea (Perverse Crimes in History: Evolving Concepts of Sadism, Lust-Murder, and Necrophilia – From Ancient to Modern Times.), Aggrawal briefly described the case of a man who derived his sexual gratification from eating the nail trimmings of corpses. I have no idea if this would count as a genuine case of fingernail fetishism, but it’s certainly a case of someone who was gained sexual gratification from fingernails (albeit from dead people).

In a previous blog on fetishism, I wrote at length about a study led by Dr G. Scorolli (University of Bologna, Italy) on the relative prevalence of different fetishes using online fetish form data. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). They devised a scheme whereby a person’s sexual preference could be assigned to one or more of three particular categories (fetishes for particular body parts, fetishes for particular objects, and/or fetishes for different behaviours. Scorrolli and colleagues said: “these were further subdivided to describe, in broad terms preferences for (the examples in parentheses come from our data)” and one of these specifically gave the example of fingernails (in this case, a sexual fetish for the biting of fingernails):

  • A part or feature of the body (e.g., feet or overweight individuals), including body modifications (e.g., tattoos).
  • An object usually experienced in association with the body (e.g., shoes or headphones).
  • An object not usually associated with the body (e.g., dirty dishes, candles).
  • An event involving only inanimate objects (they found no examples).
  • A person’s own behavior (e.g., biting fingernails).
  • A behavior of other persons (e.g., smoking or fighting).
  • A behavior or situation requiring an interaction with others (e.g., domination or humiliation role play).

They reported that some of the sites featured references to nail fetishes comprising a total of 669 group members. This accounted for less than 1% of all fetish site members. I would also add that having read the paper and examined some of the sites given, I’m not convinced that all of these were fingernail fetishists as some of the fetish websites found (like ‘Bed of Nails’) may be sadomasochistic sites where the sexual focus is nails that are hammered rather than nails on the hand.

In my research for this article, I also came across lots of self-confessed fingernail fetishists. Here are a few examples:

  • Extract 1: “I am trying to get out more and understand why my fetish for long nails is big for me. Well it all started when I was 5 years old as a little kid. I was getting babysit by my cousin’s girlfriend and well you know she had nice long natural nails about 1 inch, inch and half, and she always was filing them, round and a little pointy too, and painting them. I used to watch and get hypnotized by that. So one day she was watching her soap operas…I decided to get up and change the channel…She warned me if I changed the channel again, I would know what her long nails are for. So she came to me I ran and hid, after I came back in the living room she surprised me from behind with one of the hardest pinches I ever experienced in my entire life… I almost felt paralysed by that pain, and after that she scratched me, hard enough to cry and it hurt. But a few days after that she tried to scratch me again when she came, and all of a sudden I was getting aroused, so she said ‘I wont hurt you this time, but I would love to be able to scratch you if you let me’. So I let her, and she started very slowly and increased the pressure as time went by, it was getting to be a new experience for me, We had set little rules and boundaries to stick by too. So she would only scratch till I got red, and if I bled…I agreed to that [be]cause she loved to scratch hard and be rough, so she had to see a little blood to be satisfied I guess. [Now] you now know how my long nails fetish got started and was born” (JayG).
  • Extract 2: I definitely became aware of my fetish around 5 or 6 [years old] when I started to become aroused and curious to what the nails must feel like on my skin…A few years later it became more weird when I started to have scratching fantasies before going to sleep giving me my first wave of self-induced erections. Nobody who doesn’t have a fetish like this gets turned on like that at such a young age. It must be highly abnormal. But we ARE freaks of nature I guess” (Saba).
  • Extract 3: “My nail fascination also began when I was quite young, but I most certainly was not physically sexually arousable at the age of 5 [years] by the sight or feel of nails. …Those early encounters I sometimes catch myself re-writing my own history with respect to the arousal part, because it’s hard to imagine myself not being physically aroused by nails, but in reality, I wasn’t, not physically. Nails didn’t do ‘that’ to me until I properly began puberty. What I felt at 5 was the excitement of the danger that nails posed (girls of 5 used their nails as weapons, I had no inkling they could also be instruments of pleasure), and certainly a heightened awareness of the differences between the genders. Even before I knew girls had different genitalia, I recognised they were meant to have long nails and we were not” (Scott).
  • Extract 4: I was around 5 or 6 (years old] is when I got fascinated by girls and women’s nails. This was way back about 55 years ago. I don’t remember seeing [long] nails…until I was 12 or 13. But if a girl had nails, she usually had them as a means of protecting herself. And hard pinching was the preferred technique. And some of the girls were very effective. I remember one girl whose nails weren’t that long, but were filed to a point. Another girl stopped cutting her nails when she was 12. I only saw her once after that time, but most of her nails must have been around 1/2 inch long, and she knew how to use them and she had a real mean streak. I guess there has always been something fascinating about a girl who might be smaller and weaker than any of the boys, but could put real fear into them. Also the thought always occurred that if the young girls could cause so much pain with their relatively short nails, what could an adult woman with much longer nails do to someone?” (MJ2)
  • Extract 5: “I’ve got something with me that started out fun, but has turned into a problem. I’ve got a fetish for long nails. They turn me on so much. First when I was younger it was fun, I’d look at pics every now and then and get off to them. Now it’s turned into a 3 o 4 times a day thing. It’s really annoying. I feel like I’m in bondage to this. My goal is to quit masturbating all together cause I feel as though it’s holding me back spiritually. But everywhere I look I see long nails on women and I get so turned on. I’m having a hard time battling this” (SececaRD)

These are just a few of the many I have come across. There are a number of similarities in the first four extracts (which may be because they all come from the same online forum. The fetish appears to have begun in early childhood, and appears to have developed through associative pairing (i.e., classical conditioning). What’s more, there appears to be a sexually masochistic tendency among those who have the fetish. The final extract comes from a different person who unlike the other fetishists wants to eradicate his fetish. Most fingernail fetishist accounts that I read were happy living with their preferred fetish. This is certainly an area where the amount of clinical and academic research is limited and I can’t see further papers being published except from a treatment perspective should such a fetishist want to eliminate their sexual desire for fingernails.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Kafka, M. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for fetishism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 357-362.

Masters, R.E.L & Lea A.E.E. (1963). Perverse Crimes in History: Evolving Concepts of Sadism, Lust-Murder, and Necrophilia – From Ancient to Modern Times. New York: The Julian Press.

McCallum. E.L. (1998.) Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism. New York: State University of New York Press.

McSweeny, A.J. (1972). Fetishism: Report of a case treated with hypnosis. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 15, 139-143.

Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.

Stekel, W. (1952). Sexual Aberrations: The Phenomena of Fetishism in Relation to Sex (Vol. 1) (Trans., S. Parker). New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Tabares, J. (2001). La perversion fetichista: Del duelo patologico a la identification maniaca alienante. Revista de Psicoanalisis de la Asociacion Psicoanalitica de Madrid, 36, 55-78.

Wikipedia (2102). Hand fetishism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_fetishism

Write back: A brief look at Oshouji and sexual calligraphy

Anyone that has followed my blogs will know that I have more than a passing interest in Japanese sexual culture. For instance, in previous blogs I have briefly examined various Japanese sexual practices and sex-related topics including Tamakeri (i.e., the masochistic practice of getting sexual pleasure and arousal from being kicked in the testicles), Hentai (i.e., Japanese hardcore Manga cartoon pornography), Shokushu Goukan (i.e., tentacle rape), Nyotaimori (i.e., eating a variety of foods or a whole meal off somebody’s naked body), Omorashi (i.e., deriving sexual pleasure from having a full bladder or a sexual attraction to someone else experiencing the discomfort of a full bladder), and Burusera (i.e., Japanese shops that sell [amongst other things] soiled female undergarments and fetishist school uniforms). There are also some sexually paraphilic behaviours that have their own names within the Japanese sexual culture (such as frotteurism being known as chikan)

While reading an online article on ‘[Ten] sex fetishes you won’t believe exist’ I spotted one on the list that I had not written about before – Oshouji – the other nine being: dendrophilia (sexual arousal from trees), exophilia (sexual attraction for aliens and non-human life forms), objectum sexuality (sexual attraction to inanimate objects), eproctophilia (sexual arousal from flatulence), hybristophilia (sexual arousal from criminals), menophilia (sexual arousal from menstruation), acrotomophilia (sexual arousal from amputees), dacryphilia (sexual arousal from crying), and lactophilia (sexual arousal from breast feeding). In fact, not only had I not written about oshouji in a previous blog but I had never even heard of it before.

Oshouji is a calligraphy fetish (calligraphy being the art of producing decorative handwriting or lettering with a pen or brush). Oshouji specifically involves calligraphy where the decorative writing is done on a person’s (usually naked) body. According to many online websites (that all basically use the same defintion), oshouji is “an ancient tradition and refers to the writing of degrading words in calligraphy on your partner [and is] one of the more artistic fetishes Japan has to offer”. As sex blog writer Coco La More notes: “I am intrigued. Such rich beauty and absolute pleasure. The artistic passion the calligrapher must be feeling. I can just imagine the intense emotion felt by both. I will be adding this one to my list”

According to the Exapamicron website, oshouji dates back to the Edo period of feudal Japan (the Edo period – sometimes referred to as the Tokugawa period – being the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan). Like other Edo forms of eroticism (such as Shunga, a Japanese term for erotic art) oshouji is considered traditional, rich and decadent. The website also claims that oshouji is “not a fetish in the sense that the painted person becomes aroused by the paint, it’s more about the thrill of degrading someone”.

As far as I am aware there is no academic writing or research on the topic (although there are academics with the surname ‘Oshouji’ which was annoying having to wade through paper after paper to see if there was anything written on the practice). Like me, someone else (Zichao) was researching into this topic and was finding the same things as me online. His research questioned whether the word ‘oshouji’ even existed (although he did admit that the act of sexual calligraphy existed):

“I’m writing a catalogue/book for an exhibition on modern Chinese calligraphy, including references to work by Zhang Qiang…This got me interested in trying to work out the history of writing on girls in Chinese, Japanese [and] Korean culture. On various non-Japanese language sites it’s referred to as ‘oshouji’ and described as something that goes back to Edo times, but these all seem to be cribbing the information from the [Tokyo Damage Report] Hentai Dictionary…Making the idea look even more dubious is the fact that typing おしょうじ, オショウジ or even (last-ditch attempt) お書字 into Japanese Google brings up nothing helpful as far as I can see. This makes me suspect that if there’s a name for the practice it’s something else…Obviously it’s something that people do – not just Zhang Qiang, but also the characters in rape and S&M manga (though in magic marker) and there’s even a film about it [The Pillow Book]. It doesn’t help that I know very little about classical Chinese [and] Japanese porn/erotica. Does the writing-on-girls-fetish have a name and a history, or is it just something that crops up spontaneously now and then?”

Another online Hentai dictionary (the Yuribou Hentai Dictionary) noted that the

“Oshouji ‘calligraphy character’ fetish [is] fairly commonly seen in Domination-submissive play in which the Dominant writes characters on the submissive’s body in order to inflict shame and embarrassment to heighten the submissive role. Commonly seen is the writing of “niku” (“meat”) on the forehead”.

As noted in the extract from Zichao above, the most high profile example of oshouji body calligraphy is the 1996 film The Pillow Book film (directed by Peter Greenaway) in which a Japanese model (Nagiko) “goes in search of pleasure and new cultural experience from various lovers. The film is a rich and artistic melding of dark modern drama with idealised Chinese and Japanese cultural themes and settings, and centres on body painting (Wikipedia entry on The Pillow Book)

Sexual calligraphy has also crept into the world of modern art via the work of Pokras Lampas. Lampras has a background in graffiti and street art. As an online Wide Walls profile piece on him notes:

“Lampas works in various spaces and using different mediums, from canvas and walls to the naked body. To a certain extent, the artist is involved in the art of tattoo, providing council and creating sketches when it comes to calligraphy work. However, the aspect of the artist’s practice which is most interesting, resonates the new possibilities of calligraphy within the world of digital urban art. This notion is part of one of his biggest projects…Recently, the artist became involved in a project called Calligraphy on Girls, which aims to show his calligraphy skills to a wider audience through sessions of body painting and photography. The project is an exploration of the female human form, executed with a particular aesthetics and a unique visual language of the artist”.

Whether Lampas’ work can be called an example of oshouji is debatable because it doesn’t appear to involve the use of degrading words (in fact there are few words at all as far as I can see). Oshouji (if it really exists) appears to be a much less prevalent activity than some of the other Japanese sexual practices I have written about although in the absence of any research papers on most forms of Japanese sexual subculture no-one can be really sure how widespread any of these activities are.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Tokyo Damage Report (2009). Hentai dictionary. February 27. Located at: http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2009/02/27/hentai-dictionary/

Wide Walls (2014). Calligraphy on girls, February 1. Located at: http://www.widewalls.ch/body-and-language-calligraphy-on-girls-provoke-article-2014/2-biology-or-culture/

Wikipedia (2015). Shunga. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunga

Yuribou Hentai Dictionary (2008). Welcome to the Yuribou Hentai Dictionary! July 11. Located at: http://fezeve868.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/welcome-to-yuribou-hentai-dictionary.html

Self-expression of interest: A brief look at extreme body modification

One of the more noticeable ‘extreme’ trends is that of body modification. Arguably the most common (and socially acceptable) forms of body modification are ear piercing and tattoos, followed by various other types of piercings (e.g., nipple piercings) and various types of plastic surgery (e.g., rhinoplasty [nose jobs] and breast augmentation [boob jobs]). More extreme types include foot binding, extreme corseting, branding, amputation, and genital cutting. Such types of actions are known as ‘acquired characteristics’ as they cannot be genetically passed on to the individuals’ children. As the body modification section of the Wikipedia entry on acquired characteristics notes:

“Body modification is the deliberate altering of the human body for any non-medical reason, such as aesthetics, sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, religious reasons, to display group membership or affiliation, to create body art, shock value, or self-expression. The frequency of occurrence depends on the location, extent, and number of modifications, and, perhaps most importantly, on the mind of each individual being asked to accept the modifications on another”.

In a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr. David Veale and Dr. Joe Daniels added that:

“Body modification is a term used to describe the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons (e.g., self-expression). It is invariably done either by the individual concerned or by a lay practitioner, usually because the individual cannot afford the fee or because it would transgress the ethical boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon. It appears to be a lifestyle choice and, in some instances, is part of a subculture of sadomasochism. It has existed in many different forms across different cultures and age”.

These definitions of body modification would also appear to include such practices as circumcision (although this may of course be done for legitimate medical reasons as well as cultural and/or religious rites of passage). Other ‘extreme’ forms of body modification include:

  • Earlobe stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the earlobe through the gradual increase in size of piercing rings. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons, self-expression and/or group membership.
  • Branding: This refers to the deliberate burning of the skin to produce an irreversible symbol, sign, ornament and/or pattern on human skin. This is typically carried out for group membership reasons (but can also be carried out for aesthetics and/or self-expression).
  • Subdermal Implants (pocketing): This refers to a type of body jewelry placed underneath the skin and often used in conjunction with other forms of body modification. The body then ‘heals’ over the implant leading to a raised (sometimes 3-D) design. This is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Extraocular implants: This refers to the placing of small pieces of jewelry in the eye by cutting the surface layer of the eye following a surgical incision. Again, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Corneal tattooing: This is the practice of injecting a colour pigment into the eye. As with the previous two examples, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Tongue splitting: This refers to the splitting of the tongue so that the tongue looks like (for instance) a serpent’s tongue.
  • Tooth filing: This refers to the practice of filing teeth (often into the shape of sharp pointed fangs). This may be done for a variety of reasons including group membership, aesthetics and/or self-expression.
  • Tightlacing (waist training, corset training): This refers to the use of incredibly tight fitting corsets (typically by women) to produce an archetypal ‘hourglass’ figure. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons.
  • Pearling (genital beading): This refers to the permanent insertion of small beads beneath the skin of the genitals (such as the labia in women or the foreskin in men). Most of those who engage in pearling do it for aesthetic and/or sexual enhancement reasons (e.g., to increase sexual stimulation during vaginal or anal intercourse).
  • Anal stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the anus with the use of specialized built for purpose ‘butt plugs’ (typically carried out for sexual enhancement and stimulation).
  • Penis splitting (penile bisection): This is the cutting and splitting of a person’s penis from the glans towards the penis base (and which I covered at length – no pun intended – in a previous blog). This is typically done for reasons of sexual stimulation and fetishistic enhancement for either the self and/or sexual partner (although it has also been done for both religious and/or aesthetic reasons).

A really great 2007 review paper by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues in the journal Body Image examined all the known motivations for body modification (including tattoos and piercings) based on scientific studies and concluded almost all motivations fell into one or more of the following ten categories:

  • Beauty, art, and fashion (i.e., body modification as a way of embellishing the body, achieving a fashion accessory and/or as a work of art).
  • Individuality (i.e., body modification as a way of being special and distinctive, and creating and maintaining self-identity).
  • Personal narratives (i.e., body modification as a form of personal catharsis, and/or self-expression. For instance, it was claimed that some abused women “create a new understanding of the injured part of the body and reclaim possession through the deliberate, painful procedure of body modification and the permanent marking”).
  • Physical endurance (i.e., body modification as a way of testing a person’s own threshold for pain endurance, overcoming personal limits, etc.).
  • Group affiliations and commitment (i.e., body modification as part of sub-cultural membership or the belonging to a certain social circle).
  • Resistance (body modification as a protest against parents or society).
  • Spirituality and cultural tradition (i.e., body modification as part of a spiritual or cultural movement).
  • Addiction (i.e., body modification as a physical and/or psychological addiction due to (i) the release of endorphins associated with the pain of undergoing the practice, and/or (ii) the association with memories, experiences, values or spirituality).
  • Sexual motivations (i.e., body modification as a way of enhancing sexual stimulation).
  • No specific reason (i.e., body modification as an impulsive act without forethought or planning).

The review paper was incredibly thorough and these ten motivations cover everything they came across in the academic study of body modification. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently mentioned motivation was the expression of individuality and the embellishment of the own body. Hopefully I’ll cover some of the more specific body modifications in future blogs.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. London: Routledge.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Rowanchilde, R. (1996). Male genital modification. Human Nature, 7, 189-215.

Veale, D. & Daniels, J. (2012). Cosmetic clitoridectomy in a 33-year-old woman. Archives of Sex Behavior, 41, 725-730.

Wikipedia (2012). Acquired characteristic. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acquired_characteristic

Wikipedia (2012). Body modification. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_modification

Wikipedia (2012). Penile subincision. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penile_subincision

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body image, 4, 87-95.

Tat’s life: A brief look at extreme tattooing on film

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t mind a bit of ‘pop psychology’ every now and again (and have even wrote articles defending it – see ‘further reading’ section below). I’m also someone who believes that art not only imitates life, but life can sometimes imitate art. This has led me to write academic articles on films (such as The Gambler) to see what extent the film represents the reality of psychological conditions. I’m also someone who uses film clips as teaching aids as sometimes film or a two-minute film clip says more than any academic paper about a particular psychological concept. (For instance, I think the film 12 Angry Men probably says more about the psychology of minority influence than any paper I’ve read on the topic). All this preamble is by way of saying there’s not a lot of academic research in this blog, and is one of the few times I will just write about whatever is on my mind.

Anyway, I was travelling back from a work trip to South Korea recently and caught up with a lot of films that I had been meaning to watch for some time. I watched four particular films on one plane flight – Eastern Promises, (released in 2007), Tattoo (2002), Red Dragon (2002), and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – where (quite by coincidence) tattoos were a fundamental part of three of the four story lines (perhaps somewhat ironically, the plot of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has little to do with tattoos). Soon after after I got back from my South East Asia trip, Channel 4 then screened a television documentary called My Tattoo Addiction. This got me thinking about how tattoos have become part of the mainstream and how for some people it borders on the obsessive. In a previous blog I briefly looked at the sexually paraphilic side of tattoos when I wrote about stigmatophilia (i.e., individuals being sexually aroused by scarring but now seems to include those who are sexually aroused by tattoos and piercings). However, today’s blog takes a brief look at the non-sexually obsessive elements of tattoos.

In the film Eastern Promises (directed by one of my favourite directors David Cronenberg), the actor Viggo Mortensen plays the character Nikolai Luzhin who is the driver of a man who used to be of high standing in the Russian mafia. I’m not going to reveal any of the story line but all the tattoos in the film tell the life stories of incarcerated Russian criminals who typically have dozens of tattoos all over their bodies. Here, the constant adding of tattoos is part of the subculture and has a purpose that has nothing to do with style or fashion, and is more to do with life history and psychological identity.

To acclimatize to his role, Mortensen researched and studied Russian gangsters (called the ‘vory’) and their tattoos. More specifically, he worked with Dr Gilly McKenzie (a Russian Mafia/organized crime specialist who worked for the United Nations) and watched relevant documentaries like The Mark of Cain that contains an in-depth examination of Russian criminal tattoos. For instance, in researching this blog I have since learned that among Russian prisoners (i) an upwards-facing spider tattoo refers to an active criminal, (ii) a pair of eyes on the underside of the abdomen refers to the person being homosexual, and (iii) a skull inside a square (as a finger ring) refers to a robbery conviction. Mortensen’s tattoos were incredibly realistic (so much so that when making the film, he had dinner in a Russian restaurant in London and the other diners stopped talking out of fear!). Mortensen also admitted that:

“I talked to [real Russian gangsters] about what [the tattoos] meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they’d been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were. Basically their history, their calling card, is their body.”

Given the title of the film, it’s not surprising that the film Tattoo (directed by German film director Robert Schwentke) features tattoos as fundamental to the story plot. The main underlying story involves a serial killer who is obsessively murdering people for their tattoos (i.e., the body tattoos are viewed as a work of art by thekiller). The subject of killing people for their tattoos has been covered in other stories (most notably by Roald Dahl in his short story Skin) but the film is very good and unlike Eastern Promises where the seemingly obsessive motivation for the tattoos is a statement about life history and belonging to their cultural group (the vory), in this film the people who have all over body tattoos are a walking piece of art and the obsession is with the unseen protagonist.

I ought to mention there is another (1981) film called Tattoo (directed by Bob Brooks) that is about tattoo obsession. In this earlier film, Bruce Dern plays the character Karl Kinsky, a mentally unstable tattoo artist who makes his living by creating temporary tattoos for models. Kinsky becomes obsessed with a model (Maddy), kidnaps her, and forces her to wear ‘his mark’ (i.e., a full body tattoo). He keeps her captive as he creates his masterpiece on her body. The strapline on all the film posters says it all: “Every great love leaves its mark”.

In the film Red Dragon, (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name), one of the film’s main characters (Francis Dolarhyde) has a huge tattoo of (surprise, surprise) a red dragon on his back because of his extreme obsession with William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and what he feel it represents. The tattoo covered all of Dolarhyde’s back, and extended onto his upper arms and down onto his buttocks and legs (although this doesn’t win the prize for the most tattooed man in a film – that surely must be ‘Carl’ played by Rod Steiger in the 1969 film The Illustrated Man).

What I find fascinating about all these films is the different ways that psychological obsessions can manifest themselves, and how the stories involving tattoos are totally believable because tattoos have become so much part of Westernized culture over the last decade. Not only that but tattoos have become ‘normalized’ and call into question academic research into excessive tattooing. For instance, I recently read a 2002 case report by Dr. Harpreet Duggal on repetitive tattooing as an obsessive-compulsive disorder that talked about excessive tattoos being linked to those with an anti-social personality disorder and being a “self-mutilatory behaviour”. Their report (which was only written a decade ago):

“Tattooing has been viewed as an act of self-mutilation (Raspa & Cusack, 1990), the latter being a characteristic of borderline personality disorder. The noteworthy aspect of this case is that tattooing initially represented an act of self-mutilation in consonance with the underlying personality disorder. However, later it became repetitive and had a ‘compulsive’ quality to it, though not a true compulsion by definition. There are rare reports of self-mutilation taking on a compulsive pattern but this mostly occurs with cutting and burning acts”.

This leaves me wondering how heavily tattooed celebrities like David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Robbie Williams, and Angelina Jolie would feel if they read how their behaviour might be pathologized by psychologists and psychiatrists alike?

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Duggal, H.S. & Fisher, B. (2002). Repetitive tattooing in borderline personality and obsessive- compulsive disorder. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 190–192.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). ‘Pop’ psychology. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 455-457.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Pop psychology and “aca-media”: A reply to Mitchell. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 537-538.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Media literature as a teaching aid for psychology: Some comments. Psychology Teaching Review, 5(2), 90.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Raspa, R.F. & Cusack, J. (1990) Psychiatric implications of tattoos. American Family Physician, 41,1481-1486.

Tattoo’s company: A beginner’s guide to stigmatophilia

One of the less researched sexual behaviours is stigmatophilia. It is a sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual pleasure and arousal from a partner that is marked in some way. Traditional definitions of stigmatophilia referred to such individuals being sexually aroused by scarring but more recent formulations of stigmatophilia includes those who are sexually aroused by tattoos and piercings (i.e., body modifications especially relating to genitals and/or nipples). According to Professor John Money, stigmatophilia can also refer to the reciprocal condition where the sexual focus is on the person who has the scars, tattoos, and/or piercings. Other even more recent definitions claim that a stigmatophile is “a person with this fetish is sexually aroused by body piercing and tattooing but not ear piercing” (Gay Slang Dictionary).

Stigmatophilia is one of many different eligibility (also called stigmatic) types of paraphilia. In his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, Dr Anil Aggrawal (Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India) writes that the strategy adopted by those who have eligibility paraphilias is that:

“To protect the saintly love from sinful lust is to chose his partner who is so base so unqualified, so depraved that he or she is simply unable or ineligible to compete with the saint, their partner must become a pagan infidel or an erotic heathen. The partner must not appear to be a proper or likeable person. This is done by choosing a partner who is very diminutive or towering in stature fat or skinny very young (paedophilia) or very old (gerontophilia), disfigured, deformed (dysmorphophilia), crippled, stigmatized  (stigmatophilia), even an amputee (acrotomophilia) In extreme cases, the paraphilic wants his partner to be from a different species (zoophilia) or dead (necrophilia), or even a dead specimen of a different species (necrozoophilia). Sometimes the paraphilic may want even himself to be deformed (he is also one of the partners in love making). This desire is reflected in paraphilias like apotemnophilia in which the paraphiliac desires to have his own healthy appendages (limb, digit, or genitals) amputated”

In previous blogs on various fetishes and paraphilia, I have written about a study led by Dr G. Scorolli (University of Bologna, Italy) on the relative prevalence of different fetishes using online fetish forum data. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). They reported that some of the sites featured references to stigmatophilia (including body modification). This category made up a small minority of all online fetishes (4%).

Brenda Love noted in her book Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices that tattooing was brought back to Europe by sailors (who had become fascinated by this art from). Consequently, Professor Christine Braunberger (Onondaga Community College, Syracuse, US) wrote a paper for the online journal Genders in 2000 examining the cultural and sexual significance of sailor’s tattoos. She asserted that tattoos are “erotic and potentially fetishistic from an experiential level” and that they “also visually mark a conflation of nationalism and sexuality”. She also argues that navy tattoos depicting women illustrate a “heterofamilial fetish of national culture” that encourages tattoos to be viewed as marks of familial desire (in fact she tries to argue that such tattoos are “symbolic surrogates” for wives and girlfriends). These tattoos often contained “naked women, women draped in flags or other patriotic regalia, dancing girls, and the popular ‘Lady Luck’ or ‘Man’s Ruin’ images in which a female form was surrounded by booze bottles, dice and cards”.

While researching this blog, I came across this confession from a male with a tattoo fetish:

Now I almost 30 and I am working on a complete tattoo bodysuit. I still am turned on by the idea of being totally covered in ink. I am almost there and I only have a few blank spots left. Before I get more I really want to understand this. I was never abused. I don’t hate my body. I have lots of confidence and there is no ‘thing’ in my past that I can think of that would make me this way. It also isn’t a rebellion thing because my family is cool with it and so is my job. I just love having ink, I love getting it, I love the pain, I love the healing, I love looking at it and I love when women touch it. Why am I this way? I am a normal guy and I have a normal sex life, normal relationships etc. BUT when I masturbate I usually don’t need porn. I just picture my entire body being covered in tattoos…Sometimes I look at my own ink in the mirror etc. The more I get the happier I am. I just want to know, what would cause this? Where do fetishes come from? Are they bad if they don’t interfere with your life?”

For me, this quote neatly sums up the fact that this person’s fetish is unproblematic but is key to his sexual arousal. He also displays what Dr. Katherine Irwin writing in a 2003 issue of Sociological Spectrum might call a ‘positive deviant’. Her paper examined two groups within the most elite realm of tattooing (i.e., tattoo collectors and tattooists), and identified how they use both positive and negative deviant attributes to maintain a privileged status on the fringe of society. Whilst not concentrating on the fetishistic element, many of her observations may apply to those with tattoo fetishes. However, she does note that:

“Tattooists foster tastes for macabre and bizarre objects. Such products as fetish magazines, medical books depicting congenital abnormalities, and fringe films and art are highly coveted by members of the elite world of tattooing”

Comparatively little is known about intimate body piercing or its relevance to human behaviour. Dr. Charles Moser and his colleagues published a paper in a 1993 issue of Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality on reasons for nipple piercing among 362 participants. The main reasons for nipple piercing were sexual responsiveness and sexual interest. More recently, Professor Carol Caliendo and her colleagues carried out some research on intimate body piercings that they published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing. They surveyed a convenience sample of intimately pierced individuals (63 women and 83 men) across 29 US states. Participants reported having nipple piercings (43%), genital piercings (25%) or both types (32%). Compared to the general US population those with sexual piercings were significantly younger, less ethnically diverse, better educated, less likely to be married, more often homosexual or bisexual and they initiated sexual activity at a younger age. The average age for first nipple piercing was 25 years, and for genital piercing was 27 years. Their reasons for getting the piercings were uniqueness, self-expression and sexual expression.

Arguably, one of the best papers on motivations for tattooing and body piercing was published by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues (University of Goettingen, Germany) in a 2007 issue of the journal Body Image. They established ten broad motivational categories, comprising motivations for getting tattooed and body pierced. This they hoped would serve as a reference in future research in the area. The ten categories were: (i) beauty, art, and fashion, (ii) individuality, (iii) personal narratives, (iv) physical endurance, (v) group affiliations and commitment, (vi) resistance, (vii) spirituality and cultural tradition, (viii) addiction, (ix) sexual motivations, and (x) no specific reasons (e.g., doing it on impulse, or doing it while intoxicated). In relation to sexual motivations, the authors noted that:

“Nipple and genital piercings are quite common and serve as decoration, but also for direct sexual stimulation. Expressing sexual affectations or emphasizing their own sexuality through tattooing and body piercing are also common motivations”.

Clearly, the research that is beginning to be carried out in recent years doesn’t really make specific reference to stigmatophilia as it tends to concentrate on specific types of self-inflicted body modification (particularly tattooing and body piercing) rather than those who have been left with inflicted wounds from third parties (e.g., facial scarring).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Braunberger, C. (2000). Sutures of Ink: 
National (Dis)Identification and the Seaman’s Tattoo. Genders (Online Journal). Located at: http://www.genders.org/g31/g31_braunberger.html

Caliendo, C., Armstrong, M.L. & Roberts A.E. (2005). Self-reported characteristics of women and men with intimate body piercings. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 49, 474–484

Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23, 27-57.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Meyer D. (2000) Body piercing: old traditions creating new challenges. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 26, 612–614.

Moser C., Lee J. & Christensen P. (1993) Nipple piercing: an exploratory-descriptive study. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 6(2), 51–61.

Money, J. (1984). Paraphilias: Phenomenology and classification. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 38, 164-78.

Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J. & Kappeler, P.M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image, 4, 87-95